West Virginia Football: Losing Streak Leading to Roster Shakeup in Morgantown
West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen and the whole Mountaineer football program have taken a lesson from author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou.
Angelou once said, "If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. Don't complain."
The first part of that equation—not liking something—well, I think that's obvious for this team.
A month ago, the Mountaineers were ranked among the Top Five teams in the nation with their sights firmly fixed on a Big 12 conference title and the competition for a national title berth:
"I wanted to win 'em all," quarterback Geno Smith told the media after WVU's loss to Oklahoma State (via BlueGoldNews.com). "I wanted to win a national championship. That's gone down the tubes. It's hard. I'm not gonna hang my head. I'm the leader of this team. We have three tough weeks left. I'm gonna go out there and give it my best each and every one of those weeks."
In hindsight, if the Mountaineers had stayed undefeated like they hoped, they may be ranked No. 1 in the nation right now. However, as Smith said, that has gone down the tubes as WVU has now dropped four consecutive games, all in Big 12 play. Now the Mountaineers (5-4) are just trying to salvage bowl eligibility—a situation they definitely don't enjoy:
"We gotta win a game," Smith said. "That's all we gotta do is win a game and get bowl eligible, then the rest of it will take care of itself. I can't be one of those guys who's gonna say 'It's the end of the world,' because it's not."
While some are saying "It's the end of the world," Smith, his coaching staff and some of his teammates are working to guide WVU back on track.
Others on the West Virginia roster, however, apparently haven't approached the situation with this kind of resilience and determination.
After the loss to OSU, Smith alluded to the presence of this negativity and the fact that some members of the team haven't been pulling their own weight.
In his postgame interview, he was asked why this team hasn't been able buck its losing trend. He was also asked about what differences he saw between this team and the previous teams he has been on when they were faced with similar adversity:
"I think we're not just doing a good enough job at managing each and every down. I don't think it means that much to every one of us as it does to some of us," Smith said. "(On previous teams) we had guys step up. We had guys who the game actually meant a lot to them. To be honest with you this game is all I got—which is why it hurts so much."
Disappointment and bewilderment were both noticeable through the body language and facial expressions of the WVU signal-caller after the loss.
However, there was also a subtle but palpable change in his demeanor when he spoke about the lack of heart coming from his teammates—the same teammates that have been poisoning the attitude in the West Virginia locker room for who knows how long.
In the past week, West Virginia has endured the departure of two members of its receiving corps.
The first to go was freshman Travares Copeland. WVU cited "personal reasons" as spurring his departure.
Next, another receiver—junior Ivan McCartney—parted ways with WVU, also for "personal reasons."
Now, many people will immediately conclude that these departures are related and that Holgorsen is losing his hold on the locker room, which, in reality, isn't the case.
The night before the announcement of his departure, Copeland tweeted that leaving Morgantown would be best for his situation back home. McCartney's situation is entirely different.
Copeland had just had his redshirt removed, as he began to earn more playing time and make his impact on the field. McCartney, meanwhile, had seemingly been out of favor with the coaching staff all season long.
A 4-star recruit and the cousin of All-Pro NFL receiver Chad Johnson, he had as much promise as just about any wide receiver recruit ever to come to Morgantown. By his sophomore season, he was beginning to live up to those expectations as he finished No. 3 on the team with 585 receiving yards while starting in 10 games.
However, somewhere along the way, things went awry for McCartney at West Virginia. He wasn't even included on the initial depth chart for the 2012 season, as the junior was supplanted by as many as four freshmen receivers (Copeland not included).
Since that time, "IMac" recorded just nine receptions in eight contests and started in just one game—an overtime loss to TCU in which he just recorded one catch. Last week, he didn't even make the road trip to Stillwater.
When Holgorsen was asked about his absence after the game with OSU, he replied, clearly agitated (via BlueGoldNews.com), "Why are you worried about it? I'm worried about the guys that are here wanting to play. There's a whole lot more important things to talk about than one person."
A couple of days after he said this, McCartney was gone—likely driven out by the WVU staff that wasn't appreciative of his apparent lack of commitment to the team and his overemphasis on the "I" in "IMac."
One might think this deluge of midseason departures is a sign of a crumbling team dynamic. While it may be negative to see players dissatisfied with the program, it is also a sign that the coaching staff is working to make a change and eradicate the negativity from the locker room.
While the coaches may not have booted McCartney outright, their decision to leave him behind on the trip to OSU was likely the last straw for an already disgruntled athlete.
The strangest part of the McCartney situation was the fact that he actually earned his first start of the season against TCU just one week before he was left at home. Clearly, the coaching staff gave the junior plenty of opportunities to prove his commitment to the team and earn his spot—opportunities he apparently failed to take advantage of.
So, they finally made some changes—better late than never.
Last week, Holgorsen tabbed three seldom-used receivers—freshman Cody Clay, sophomore Connor Arlia and senior Ryan Nehlen—to play in replacement of some of the players who hadn't bought into the team philosophy.
Clay had been shuffled around from inside receiver to fullback this season, and has now been brought back to receiver. He brings a blocking presence that no other receiver that has been able to match.
Arlia and Nehlen had hardly seen the field this year, but combined for seven receptions, 51 yards and a touchdown—not too far shy of the nine receptions, 112 yards and zero touchdowns hauled in by McCartney all season long.
More important than the receptions and touchdown was the attitude change brought on by the trio:
"Effort was really good. What I am talking about as far as what needs to happen on every position involved is that it (being on the field) means a whole lot to those guys," Holgorsen said in his weekly press conference (via WVUSports.com). "You take guys like Connor (Arlia), Ryan (Nehlen) and Cody Clay. Cody has been a fullback for the last seven or eight weeks. We lined him up at receiver and ran routes...Just sheer effort, grit, want to and it means a lot to them. Those are three of the most disappointed kids in our locker room after the game. We need more of that to exist. I am proud of how they did that. I can’t manufacture new people. It is what we got."
While that effort and attitude change wasn't enough for WVU to come away with a win, the Mountaineer offense actually played one of its best games in the past month, and if it weren't for a few crazy, untimely mistakes, they just might have pulled off the upset.
And while a fourth straight loss is bad, these changes are a sign that WVU is headed in the right direction. There was more effort and positive attitude on the field than in the four previous weeks.
Against Oklahoma State, the Mountaineers were down just like they were against Texas Tech and Kansas State, but this time they battled back. Trailing by two touchdowns at the half, instead of packing it in and feeling sorry for themselves, they clawed their way back into the game.
All of West Virginia's core goals set forth at the beginning of the year—the same ones Smith mentioned—are out of the window. Now, the Mountaineers can only work on improving as a team from week to week.
It is far from an ideal situation in November and this team is a long way from where it should be.
However, rather than complaining about the situation, they are making changes—with their personnel and their attitude.
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